Wisconsin Budget Fight

Gov. Evers vs. the state legislature

 Joe Murray  |    June 10, 2019
Wisconsin Budget Fight

In my January 2019 article in Wisconsin Real Estate Magazine, I asked the question on the minds of most Capitol insiders: how will Gov. Tony Evers get along with the GOP state legislature? Since that time, Evers introduced his first state budget bill to the Republican-dominated legislature, and we now have our answer: not well at all. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll use a few direct quotes to illustrate the point.

Gov. Tony Evers: ‚ÄúI understand there‚Äôs some tax increases. The reason the budget is the way it is is we listened to the people of Wisconsin. They said they wanted better schools, more adequately resourced schools, they said they wanted health care, and affordable and accessible health care, and they said they wanted to fix the roads. So those issues, basically there‚Äôs a cost involved in that.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 1, 2019

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos: ‚ÄúRepublicans will once again put forward a spending plan that sets the right priorities for the state. Unlike Evers‚Äô budget, we will not create a massive $2 billion structural deficit and hurt future budgets by out-of-control spending.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ Weekly e-newsletter from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald: ‚ÄúMany of the budget proposals Gov. Evers has pushed thus far are unserious, making major departures from how the Senate has operated in previous years.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 27, 2019

State Budget Committee Co-chairs Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling: ‚ÄúThe bottom line is his budget is unsustainable, irresponsible and jeopardizes the progress we‚Äôve made in the last eight years.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 2, 2019

Divided state government

Given the fact that Wisconsin has entered a new era of divided government with a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature, strong differences of opinion on matters as big as the biennial state budget are not a surprise.

Evers and legislative Democrats believe Wisconsin voters signaled a desire in the 2018 elections to take Wisconsin state government in a fundamentally different direction, and the Evers budget does just that. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that they, along with former Gov. Scott Walker, turned Wisconsin around and provided the new governor with an economy producing more jobs than employers can fill as well as the highest GDP growth since 2010.

So the new governor and GOP-controlled legislature must find a way to work together and pass a biennial state budget, the single most important legislative requirement every two years. In January, we didn’t know what exactly Evers would include in his first budget bill, how the GOP would respond, and if the new political dynamic of divided government would produce a tax and spending plan that both sides could agree on. As the legislature continues its work on the state budget bill, we can answer these questions with some clarity.

Evers’ first budget

Both Democrats and Republicans expected Evers to include the major issues he ran on in his budget: significantly higher education funding, health care reform through Medicaid expansion, protecting the environment, a long-term funding solution to Wisconsin’s transportation needs, and a 10 percent tax cut for most Wisconsin taxpayers. All five of these campaign promises were included in his budget that was introduced in late February.

What the GOP didn’t expect was the sheer volume of additional policy and spending proposals that would roll back some of the more significant GOP accomplishments from the Walker era. These include repealing the Wisconsin right-to-work law, the elimination of the prevailing wage law, limitations on choice and charter school enrollments, and the repeal of most of the lame-duck laws passed by the legislature before Evers was sworn into office. In addition, the Evers budget would limit the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, increase property taxes statewide, and raise the gas tax by eight cents a gallon. For Republicans, these are all unacceptable proposals.

Republicans responded by pulling most of these items from the budget bill and working from current spending levels when making their fiscal decisions for the next two years.

Republican-crafted budget

Instead of trying to work from the Evers budget proposal, GOP legislative leaders crafted their own budget. By starting from current spending levels and removing the objectionable items from consideration, Republicans will send the new governor a budget that reflects their priorities and policy objectives, and Evers will have to decide what to do with it when it reaches his desk.

But there is political risk here for both sides. Voters may agree or disagree on policy items, but they always want the two sides to work together to get big things done; and passage of a state budget bill is the single biggest and most important job of every two-year legislative session. How will voters respond in 2020 if Wisconsin state government starts to look as dysfunctional as the federal government?

WIll Evers veto the GOP budget?

As the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, which is the state budget committee, continues to reshape the Evers budget proposal, the rift between the legislature and the first-term governor continues to grow. When the governor was asked if he would veto a GOP-written budget that ignores his plan, Evers responded, ‚Äúanything‚Äôs possible.‚ÄĚ

No governor has vetoed the entire state budget since 1931. Former Govs. Tommy Thompson (R) and Jim Doyle (D) used Wisconsin’s powerful line-item veto authority to significantly rewrite budgets to their liking, but never seriously considered a veto of the entire state budget. Failing to pass a timely state budget makes it difficult for local governments and school districts to write their budgets, and the political blowback would be powerful.

But the Evers vs. GOP budget fight is taking place in a political environment with more partisan intensity than the Thompson or Doyle eras. Legislative Republicans and Walker had their way for eight years prior to the 2018 election of Evers, and the new governor is determined to put his stamp on the first budget of the Evers era.

State budgets are supposed to be passed by the end of June and signed into law by July. Even if the GOP legislature passes a budget and puts it on Evers’ desk by early July, the governor may decide to make history and require the legislature to start over. How this all ends remains to be seen.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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